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“Trick or treat?”

It’s a phrase that can be endearing or intimidating; and it’s heard all over the country, indeed over half the Western world, on the night of October 31. From the ritual pageantry of an American Halloween (pumpkins on the porch, parties throughout the neighbourhood) to the more prosaic English counterpart – where little Johnny from next door stands sheepishly next to his mum while you try and find a biscuit from the cupboard – Halloween is big business.

The origins of Halloween are (like most religious or quasi-religious festivals) complicated. Several pagan festivals bear ritual similarities with All Hallow’s Eve – including the Celtic Samhain; and the Roman festival of the dead, Parentalia.

In all cases, the idea of departed souls is close at hand. The masks worn by modern trick or treaters have their origins in the idea that if you disguised your face, a ghost wouldn’t be able to tell who you are. Early Christian manifestations of the festival used disguise and ornamentation to fool the wandering spirits of the recently deceased, which were popularly believed to walk the earth until midnight on October 31 – at which point the advent of All Saint’s Day (All Hallows) would banish them for eternity to the next world. The masks prevented vengeful souls from recognising their living enemies and wreaking havoc on them before they left.

Pretty spooky stuff – though taken in the normal spirit of fun, Halloween celebrations can be ghoulishly enjoyable for all involved! As grandparents, it can be great to get involved in the costume making and even in chaperoning our little ghosts and goblins around the neighbourhood looking for treats. This tradition seems to have developed from an old English and Irish practice – “souling” – in which poor children would offer to ward off the souls of the dead through song, in exchange for food.

The “trick” part of the trick or treat activity is an almost always hollow threat. We all know that the words are a kind of formality: and when we take part in the ritual wholeheartedly it’s all good clean fun. Do be aware, though, that some tricksters take things a little more seriously. As a senior citizen the golden rule applies, even on a night when everyone is out knocking on doors – if you don’t know who’s behind the mask, you don’t have to open the door.

There are plenty of other activities for grandparents and  children suitable for Halloween fun – ranging from traditional party games like apple bobbing to family specific traditions. Why not create your own Halloween party for your grandchildren and their friends? As long as you pay attention to some basic rules for safety at home, everyone can enjoy themselves hugely without having to wander the streets.

The first rule of safety at home on Halloween: never leave burning candles unattended (remember those pumpkin heads!); and don’t let the children play bobbing for apples – in flour or water – without a responsible adult present.

Make up your own activities for kids or stick to the classics. Help your grandchildren make the best Jack o Lantern ever (again, remember safety at home and don’t fail to supervise from start to finish). Enjoy some simple cooking with the pumpkin you remove. And keep a bowl of sweets by the door for the little imps who might come knocking…

Top Halloween links:

Joker’s Masquerade – for kid’s Halloween costumes.

Project Britain – where kids can learn more about the festival.